By Dr. Jennifer Walsh-Rurak
What if just one slight change could foster the development of happier, healthier, higher achieving teens? Certainly such a change would be of paramount interest to parents and educators alike; especially because this minor modification can effectively promote a positive social, emotional, physical and academic dynamic and is not medicinal or remedial. Despite mood swings, disengagement and other challenges sometimes associated with the adolescent development period this small adjustment will lead to overwhelmingly positive outcomes for teens. So what is this secret element that holds such power for happier, healthier, more mindful teens? The surreptitious factor is implementing later school start times.
A recent Harvard/Oxford study contends that implementing later school start times for teens does not reflect laziness amongst teens, but rather a biological inevitability (Kelley, Lockley & Foster, 2015). Furthermore, the study (2015) asserts that by failing to adjust educational timetables, so they are aligned to the biological changes experienced during adolescence results in chronic, systematic and prevalent sleep loss. The unrecovered sleep that results from early school start times has significant consequences for teens, including reduced attention and concentration, increased irritability, decreased empathy and difficulty with memory encoding and consolidation (Kelley, Lockley & Foster, 2015).
The average school start time for teens across the country is 8:03 a.m., yet the Harvard/Oxford study (2015) suggests a mid-morning start time will result in positive academic, social, emotional and physical benefits for adolescents.
Specific benefits of later school start times include:
• Improved Performance of Assessments – A study conducted by JAMA Pediatrics (2010) asserts that later school start times result in an increase in performance on tests for middle school students, and the longitudinal benefits showed that test scores continued to improve through high school. The study suggests that when students are well-rested and alert there are measurable improvements in academic achievement.
• Positive Changes in Attendance – As the parents of many teens can confirm, early mornings can be very difficult. Pleading with tired teens to get out of bed early in the morning so they are on time for school can be difficult and frustrating. Morning tiredness can lead to school refusal and increased absences, whereas later school start times can help promote regular school attendance.
• Improved Mood – Tired teens can be grumpy and irritable, while well rested teens tend to experience more positive moods. Adequate sleep results in more even-tempered teens who exhibit fewer mood swings. Additionally, improved temperament can result in an increased willingness to navigate academic, social and emotional tasks with more positive attitudes.
• Willingness to Take on More Challenges – In some instances, a teen might not be capable of maintaining high levels of engagement in courses such as calculus at 7:30 a.m. That does not mean the same teen is not capable of successfully completing that course work later in the day when he or she is more rested and attentive. Teens are more apt to actively and efficaciously participate in more challenging tasks when they feel well rested and alert.
• Improved Physical Fitness – Exercise and physical activity promote overall health and well-being, but tired teens are less likely to participate in activities that support physical fitness. Later school start times allow adolescents to sustain the energy to play after school sports, take a yoga class or go for a walk.
School start times must begin to account for adolescents’ sleep needs, circadian rhythm and physical demands of the teenage developmental stage. Aligning adolescent sleep patterns to school start times can optimize the teenage brain in a way that promotes healthy and happy teens who are able to reach their full potential.
Jennifer Walsh-Rurak, Ed.D. earned her doctorate in Educational Leadership from Northeastern University. Dr. Walsh-Rurak is a regional manager and school leader at Fusion Academy.
Kelley, E., Lockley, S., Foster, R., & Kelley, J., (2015). Synchronizing education to adolescent biology: Let teens sleep, start school later. Harvard/Oxford Study.
Owen, J., Belon, K., Moss, P., (2010). Impact of delaying school start time on adolescent sleep, mood and behavior. JAMA Pediatrics.